Is Freedom from Language Possible?

Reading an essay on poetry and morality (or even sin) by Geoffrey Hill, the 'great', dead, 20th century English poet born in Bromsgrove, most often considered by critics the exemplar of 'difficult', 'rigorous', 'serious' or even 'elitist' poetry (as contrasted, to, say, Larkin), one is reminded of at least one thought: to choose a style is to select a way of thinking, or appearing to think.

Allusive, circling, referential, and interested in other poets and their ideas - deferential then, to, if questioning of, tradition(s) - Hill's prose is not far from an ideal, the ideal perhaps, of what an intelligent use of language might sound like, or be. That this is an artifice - the choosing of this sort of dress for the mind, rather than another style - might be a heresy too far - some writers who are thinkers, like Orwell, consider the clear and precise use of language - a clarity - both moral and political - an essential fusion of the good - language unstained by misuse may be used to contest the powers that would shape our thought, our history, and therefore, our lives.

For a poet such as Hill, then, or a journalist turned political satirist, like Orwell, language, for all its complexity, complicity or other challenges, is to be taken seriously, and respected; like an anthropologist encountering a tribe with an unknown religion, unbelief must be balanced by cautious professionalism - or fearlessness tempered by courtesy. You don't have to like your host's cooking to politely eat it. Language, one might even say, is the bedrock. Of what, is up for debate. But it is hard to imagine a poetry without verbal behaviour - poetry seems to be precisely that art form which emerges after music, dance, drawing, let alone ritual sacrifice, are exhausted - the satiated lover can still mutter a rhyme, reach for a pen.

Politics requires, for someone like Orwell, redress - and the writer uses language to address that fact. Orwell attacked tyranny engaged in the constant misuse of language, through writing. This is only a paradox if the medium itself - the art itself - is considered - in today's parlance - systemically toxic. Yeats' worry that dancer and dance merged in the creation of the art work - very much a Catholic Mass idea brought over, via magic, into its pagan form - or vice versa - could be liberally used today - who can tell the law from the 'lawman' - the policing from the police?

Since at last WWI, poets in English have sough to use language (mimetically and politically) to describe, and proscribe, aspects of the world seen as 'fallen' - what might now be called evil, or racist, or sexist, or, again, toxic. Poetry has been corrective, at times, and more political, in that sense, more often than not. For every Yeats poem that seems to seek a Wallace Stevens 'Palaz' of idiosyncratic, orientalised transcendence, there is one about very real and violent acts of history. Or, to put it another way, the most political poet of the 20th century, Ezra Pound, was also the most famously obsessed, early and late, with the hygiene of language, its dos and don'ts - politics and style uneasily fused in his perfected madness of form.

There is no rule of poetics to rule out organic attempts, or moral attempts, or political attempts, to deploy words, and verbal behaviour, in patterns that express the poetic self or what a poet thinks their self may be; and there are no rules to rule it in - or rather, there are thousands of rules - endless amounts - in every review and essay ever written. Poems are free to be or say or do anything within the limits (are there limits?) of language, notwithstanding no one can say for sure what freedom is, or what limit to language might be, if language is the maker of the given world.

Which is why the recent decision by some British universities to recommend that grading of students no longer take into account 'proper' spelling, grammar, and so-called 'good writing' - in any subject not based [sic] first or foremost on language skills (presumably maths, sciences, engineering, etc) is so fascinating and enriching a decision. Like upon hearing the news that there is an island tribe that worshipped Prince Philip as a 'living god', the first reaction is incorrect if the first reaction is to scoff. The second reaction, to step back, and nod with assent at the complicating otherness, the challenging difference of opinion, at the news, is more rewarding.

As a writer, I know well the reasons why it is almost absurd to suggest that academic thought of any kind can be measured, spliced from the vehicle most usually associated with thought, if not being, of any kind. The fact that good writing has for so long (hundreds of years?) been the dominant measurement of integrated consciousness into the formalities and formulations of what could be called the 'elite' - or maybe just the 'correct' ay of doing things - may be the proof it has been endangering to other manners of being and thought. No one has been giving prizes (except for a few comic ones, like bad sex writing) for 'poor writing'. Indeed, illiteracy, as a concept, is a damning one. 'Literacy' has always been next to saintliness as a goal, except it seemed, for tyrannies.

But what if Orwell was wrong? What if tyrannies controlled our minds not by ruining or simplifying language, but by insisting on clear, direct expression? What if messy, demotic, confused, arguably broken language use was, Caliban-like, not the voice of the underdog being crushed, but rising to be heard? What if freedom from language is precisely possible when we stop thinking there is a language to be policed?

Without language rules, laws or expectations, without formal barriers, language becomes creatively 'other' to institutional systems, including universities. What had read or sounded like 'incoherence' or 'bad sentence structure' or 'lack of precision' now appears to be an authentic anti-style. Out with manuals on how to write PhDs - in with whatever a person wants to do or say. The unmeasurable is to be measured no more.

Let the 'ideas' themselves be judged.

Well, Orwell would think the ideas were in the way the words were compiled - as a former colonial policeman, he might.

What if ideas can be freed from language rules?

Is this not poetry? Is poetry not the ongoing excessive and unlimited exploration of the deployment of words, and verbal performances, inscribed on paper or in digital or other recording systems, precisely beyond the received and expected norms of language use? And does not poetry convey meaning, or even more meaning, than so-called 'academic prose'?

By freeing students from the need to 'learn' to write 'proper English' they are allowing the students to say themselves using creative writing  heretofore the only sort of academic writing that could never be measured by adherence to traditional expectations. Indeed, creative writing can only ever be graded by a suspension of said priorities. If originality of thought is instead the benchmark, then language becomes untethered from standards laid down as preconceived gospel. The bigoted modernist hierarchies of excellence in writing that lead to Pound's worst thoughts on race and money give way to a constellation of rebellious 'freedom' writers - from Malcolm X (and Alex Haley) to bell hooks - to tomorrow's online exclamations of concern, outrage and demand for justice.

Or, do we draw from another feminist thinker, Denise Riley, whose expert studies of language and poetics, so thoroughly engage with the most difficult and complex levels of linguistic argument and intellection (from Hegel to Butler), so that, as for Empson, language's ambiguous and deeply-baroque chasms offer seemingly endless new ways to read and comprehend - and compose - though for these thinker-poets, there are limits. Even a poem by Lynette Roberts does not mean 'everything'. Freedom is not omnipotence.

So, is the idea impossible, then, of seeking to 'not evaluate' a student paper based on the 'language it uses'? What is left after language is 'ignored' or removed? Is it not, rather, that the 'imperfect language' is simply being raised to an equal or neutral status? And what could that mean? Does eloquence mean the same thing as vernacular utterance? How to tell the defiant from the defiance? The chancer from the chance? The genuinely thoughtful, from thoughtlessness? In a sense, this is a stripping away of the rhetorical school, the 'Classical' ideal of the art of rhetorical expression as a model for entry into politics, legal dispute, or public debate, even the arts. Which, in the real world (that phrase is dreadful but useful here) has long ago been abandoned, anyway.

The most vital records of human expression these past few years have been, it may be argued, in songs, poems, and social media art works, that protest and perform, outside the boundaries of classical imperatives of eloquence. This does not mean eloquence is not also exemplary, or worthy, but that it has had its day as the dominant form of preferred expression.

Freedom, then, has been what we have been writing in, already; or maybe just deeper and more complex forms of constraint, still to be exposed, and expressed.


Popular posts